Muck Over Menthol


The New York Times printed a really interesting story today about the coziness between the Congressional Black Caucus and the tobacco industry and how that relationship is playing out in a controversy over a potential ban on menthol cigarettes.

Philip Morris over the years has been one of the biggest contributors to the caucus’s nonprofit Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. That financial support, in some years exceeding $250,000, and lesser amounts at times from other cigarette makers, has been the reason some critics perceived an alliance between big tobacco and African-American members of Congress, some of whom were willing to help fend off antitobacco efforts.

Among them, some critics have said, was Charles B. Rangel of New York. Although he supported some antitobacco initiatives, until the last few years Mr. Rangel staunchly opposed federal tobacco tax increases. He has said his stand was based on the disproportionate effect of excise taxes on the poor, not the thousands of dollars he received in tobacco industry political action committee donations.

Some caucus members have always seen tobacco money as a Faustian bargain and refused to take such donations, urging their colleagues to do likewise. One of them, John Lewis of Georgia, once told a reporter, “People are reluctant to criticize the giver, to bite the hand that feeds them.”

Black lawmakers who maintain strong tobacco industry ties include James E. Clyburn, who represents a tobacco-growing region of South Carolina and is majority whip of the House. Last year, Altria, the parent of Philip Morris, donated $50,000 to an endowment he established at South Carolina State University, a historically black college.

The donation to James Clyburn’s endowment at South Carolina State University is of particular interest mainly because these are the types of influence-building contributions that fly under the radar. There isn’t any dislcosure requirement for entities that are connected to a member to which corporations can donate. Recent controversies have swelled over contributions to the Reform Institute, a non-profit connected to Sen. John McCain, and the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, affiliated with Rep. Charles Rangel.

The article is worth a read to see how influence takes place outside of typical channels like campaign finance and lobbying.